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How Local Brand Re.socks Spins Discarded Plastic Bottles Into Comfy Socks

How much thought do you put into socks?

While some people — a few of my colleagues included — take the colors and designs of their socks seriously, for many, socks are an afterthought. Something to simply protect your feet and, if you somehow misplace one while doing laundry, that's sort of annoying, but oh well. It's safe to say the that the team at Re.socks is part of the population which takes socks seriously.

The eight-member startup began in September of last year, and they pursue a model that is becoming more prominent amid the global plastic crisis: using waste that is already created in order to produce something else. Specifically, they transform discarded plastic bottles into socks.

The Re.socks team with their product. Photo by Bình Minh via Tuoi Tre.

"We share an interest in the environment and sustainable fashion," said Quach Kien Lan, Re.socks' head. "Plastic waste is a major global issue, but waste can actually be a resource when we know how to recycle it into useful products."

They determined that Polyethylene terephthalate (PET), or the plastic used to make water bottles, could be broken down and then spun into yarn in order to make a fabric good. This involves collecting used plastics, turning them into plastic beads, pulling the beads into recycled yarn, spinning the yarn into polyester fiber, and finally creating socks from that fiber.

The production process. Image courtesy of Re.socks.

"The yarn factory will collect and then process plastic bottles and filter impurities to create plastic beads," Lan says in explaining the initial step.

While this model may be relatively unknown in Vietnam, it is well-established in more developed markets like the United States. According to the Financial Times, an American manufacturer named Unifi first launched a recycled polyester fiber in 2007, and the outdoor clothing brands Patagonia and Polartec quickly began using it.

Now, around 800 apparel brands use this material in some way, including household names like Nike and Adidas as well as high-end boutiques such as Prada.

One challenge is that since waste collection and recycling in Vietnam are often done through informal networks, there are no set standards, meaning most waste isn't classified and it can't meet the standards needed for recycling into another product. As a result, most of the plastic fiber material used by Re.socks has to be imported, meaning it isn't yet improving Vietnam's waste issues.

Fabric being spun to produce socks. Photo courtesy of Re.socks.

In fact, this is a global issue, as the average plastic recycling rate around the world is just 14–18%, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. As a result, the type of high-quality PET that can be reused is in high demand in the textile and garment industry, which also competes with the general recycled product sector. This drives the price of PET up as well.

The Re.socks team understands this, and hopes that their work can play a role in driving the kind of change needed within Vietnam's recycling sector to meet the standards required to repurpose plastic into a functional product. "We hope that Re:socks' story will inspire people about sorting waste, and we hope to achieve the goal of building a collection, recycling and spinning process in Vietnam in the next five years," Lan says.

But why socks? These are probably not the first item that comes to mind when people think of recycling.

The final product. Photo provided by Re:socks.

"Our first product is socks because we want to communicate the story of 'green footsteps' made from recycled materials on a sustainable journey," Lan says. "Besides, this is a very common product; almost everyone needs it. A pair of socks, no matter how small, will help people see how recycling can create useful products."

Each pair of socks takes about three plastic bottles, and each package includes three pairs of socks in black, dark grey and light grey.

While this process reduces the number of plastic bottles going to landfills, it also eliminates greenhouse gas emissions that would normally be generated from processing virgin polyester. Once Re.socks perfects their process and partners with more companies, they will begin working with other materials, and also other productions. "We are working on creating more eye-catching designs in the near future, focusing on functionality and using combined fibers such as coffee or mushroom yarn to draw attention in a wide market where there are already many low-price products," Lan says.

Thus far, the team's customers have largely been people within the sustainability community, as well as shops in countries like the United States and United Kingdom, and they are now aiming to focus on younger Vietnamese to raise environmental awareness.

The packaging, which is recycled from paper. Photo courtesy of Re.socks.

"In the future, we will produce more products such as shirts, wallets and hats, not only made from recycled plastic materials, but also with many other sustainable materials," Lan adds.

Ton-sur-Ton is a series highlighting local brands in Vietnam that have a strong personality and compelling story. More than just textiles and colors, they bring a breath of fresh air to the nation's fashion scene. Know a distinctive local brand? Write to us via contribute@saigoneer.com.

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